Friday, June 11, 2010

Another panel on Africa?

Carol Tabu - 2010-06-10, Issue 485

With the launch of yet another advisory council for the continent, the Africa Progress Panel (APP), Carol Tabu takes a look at preceding initiatives and asks whether the APP brings anything new to the table, or is simply a rhetorical exercise in the diplomatic art of ‘saying everything and nothing at the same time’.

The proliferation of various forms of ‘councils of elders’ that are designed to monitor or offer advice within and to Africa is an interesting one to watch. Whether this is the Panel of the Wise within the African Union, the Council of Elders in ECOWAS, The Elders that includes a range of African and global leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Mary Robinson or now the Africa Progress Panel (APP) that is chaired by Kofi Annan – who also boasts membership to the Elders – some similarities are stark.

Firstly, there is the idea that there is need to return to traditional ways of doing things, some may argue for approaches that espouse consensus building (Wiredu, 1997) such as the Baraza la Wazee. Whether they are continentally-based, diasporic in constitution or located abroad, they are designed to look into Africa and solve its problems through wisdom.

Secondly, that it is only in Africa that structures akin to traditional – and I might add patriarchal – modes of leadership are needed to push this continent towards the right direction. Whether they are there to offer advice or monitor its progress and whisper into the right ears discreetly on what changes need to be made, or are designed as spaces for peer review.

Thirdly, that the idea of wisdom as strongly linked to experience and a track record (one would assume exemplary record) in one’s field (hence Obasanjo’s membership of the APP deserves some unpacking) sees age or rather old age become a criteria for membership. The youngest member of these outfits is Tidjame Thiam – 48 – on the Africa Progress Panel, while the oldest is a 90-year-old member of the ECOWAS Council of Elders.

The exclusion of youth in these panels is based on an association of old age with wisdom, great ideas and influence. For a continent whose liberation leaders were at their youngest when they took power (Thomas Sankara at 34, Tom Mboya at 30 was an influential trade unionist, Kwame Nkrumah at 48, Patrice Lumumba at 35, Nelson Mandela active in the apartheid struggle by 34, Steve Biko influential Black Consciousness leader at 22) and where the vast majority of citizens are between the ages of 16–35, this approach is dubious at best.

However, these panels and councils cannot be faulted for paying service lip or otherwise to the gender dimension, with Graca Machel being an African favourite across the African Union, the APP and The Elders. Nonetheless, the sequestering of the women who form part of these institutions to the essentialist notion that they bring to the table ‘a women’s voice’ and pointing to them as an indicator of a commitment to transforming gendered power inequalities points to an ideological fracture. One in which one or two skirt-wearer’s equal ‘women’s voice and women’s issues’ but only as they fit into the structure and not as they transform structures.

It is not difficult to comprehend that where individuals in various spaces are constantly grappling for ideas on how to make Africa in all its diversity work, many approaches will be adopted. Unfortunately, one of the easiest routes to take has been to argue for a return to an unadulterated Africa; read before the colonial forays into the continent.

However, it is now fairly common knowledge, due to the amount of literature that has been produced by African Scholars (See Mamdani, 1996, 2000; Lewis, 2004; Mama, 2001) that this notion is fraught. A pre colonial, egalitarian and I might add ‘pure’ (free from lesbians and gays) Africa is a utopia; it did not exist. So the question is why do we keep on rehashing this idea?

Now, the APP will argue that their mandate and vision is far from being similar to that of the other structures I have mentioned above. Indeed, the Panel of the Wise and the Council of Elders in the African Union and ECOWAS respectively all form part of the Peace and Security architecture within these bodies.

APP’s argument would also be based on the wide-ranging constitution of the panel: Former African elder statesman (Olusegun Obasanjo), former leader of the ‘developed’ world (Tony Blair), leaders in the corporate sector internationally and nationally (Tidjane Thiam, Linah Mohohlo), Nobel laureate (Professor Muhammad Yunus), cuts across race to include international bureaucrats (Kofi Annan, Michael Camdessus – formerly IMF, Robert Rubin, Peter Eigen – formerly World Bank) and global activists (Graca Machel and Bob Geldof). This powerful combination is seen as useful to an advocacy agenda, which is what the APP was primarily set up to do. This is done through the ‘street credentials’, if you will, of its panel members; a trick that many of our international civil society organisations have come to learn when they pound the halls of the African Union summits bi-annually with policy briefs and attempts to speak to the right foreign minister or finance minister to educate them on their job.

An extract from their website indicates that:

‘The Africa Progress Panel (APP) was formed as a vehicle to maintain a focus on the commitments to Africa made by the international community in the wake of the Gleneagles G8 Summit and of the Commission for Africa Report in 2007. Under the chairmanship of Kofi Annan, it pays equal attention to the implementation of Africa's commitments as set out in the Constitutive Act of the African Union and landmark international agreements. The Panel’s members continually assess new opportunities and threats to Africa’s development, including how far previous commitments of Africa are being met. They use their judgment and experience to highlight pressing concerns, inspire honest debate amongst leaders and civil society, help mobilise resources and prompt effective action’.

To this end the APP releases a progress report that serves as its main advocacy tool in the hands of the panel members. The recently released annual report ‘From Agenda to Action: Turning Resources into Results for its People’ was aptly launched on Africa Day. It cannot be faulted for providing an overview of the state of play. In fact, if one wanted a snapshot of key events and processes as they have been taken up internationally or regionally (Africa) and great visuals, this is a report to read. However, if one is looking for a collective set of ideas that will transform Africa’s resources into results, this report provides much of the same. The call to political will, an invocation of state fragility, the ills of corruption, an ever so slight slap on the wrist of international partners for catering to their interests within institutions created by them for this very purpose, and a reminder of how important women are to development.

In this year’s report, the discussion on aid and development financing highlights the ahistorical approach as well as a lack of emphasis on African international relations; however it fails to highlight that aid in Africa has often been misused for self-interested strategic pursuits rather than for poverty alleviation. These are interests that are not only located in Africa but also those that are derivative of and compounded by the Global North. The argument therefore that the collective strength of African leaders working in alliance is what is needed to shift negotiating power in the international arena is shaky. For it does not engage with nor analyse the ideological foundations on which most African States are founded and which we must destablise in order for meaningful change to occur. The fact that the ‘bold’ analysis conducted around tax havens and state coffer remittances into private bank accounts does not feature in the list of recommendations on how Africa should finance its development points to the panel’s gumption.

The erroneous assumptions and praise given in the report about the increase in regional integration efforts belie ongoing machinations at an international level to balkanise Africa through faulty trade agreements under the Economic Partnership Agreements. These have been conducted within new arrangements such as the East and Southern African Bloc as opposed to the East Africa Community or negotiated individually by targeting individual states’ weak points economically with regional strength being undermined, calls to question the good will of the international community in ‘developing’ Africa.

Most importantly, the continued categorisation of women as a social project, women as an end to development and what women can do for development in Africa is reminiscent of the 1970s Women in Development (WID) approach, which has since been relegated to the dustbin of history – useful in terms of tracing trajectories but not the stuff that change is made of, due to its analytical weaknesses. The tradition of adding women into processes whether this is for peace and security or in parliaments and the push for improved wellbeing of women owing to their contribution to development is one that has been challenged by many a feminist activist and scholar. For to maintain this approach is to adopt a Black Economic Empowerment approach to women – once they stop being good for development, we do not need to invest in them. The minute they begin to challenge the state or structures, which maintain inequality and overhaul, simply introduce a range of stringent laws that silence them and call it culture and preservation of nationhood.

Increasing state repression is hardly considered, particularly when mention is made of an assertive civil society that is curtailed through regulations, from those in Ethiopia – which is the most extreme example – to covert versions appearing in various forms, such as the anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda, or media gags in contexts such as Kenya.

There is no question that this report is grounded in a neoliberal approach that sees the aid, development financing and ‘developmental’ trade agreements with China hailed as a very progressive partner or when it comes to Africa’s natural resources, including land. The report’s recommendations around the land grabbing phenomenon (a terminology attributed to the media in this report) by flagging Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa’s (AGRA) efforts to develop guidelines on land leasing principles for African states deserves further scrutiny, particularly on a continent where land remains one of the major causes of conflict.

The art of diplomacy is saying everything and nothing at the same time. Indeed, that is why this group of individuals may have been put together, because of their ability to wade through the multitude of challenges and prioritise one issue that should land on the ears of the range of heads of states without offending them. As such, the report strikes the right tone in taking cognisance of the what is now popularly known to be Africa – disease, strife, poverty and conflict, balancing that with the positivist view that recognises the agency of African citizens and African leaders must be included in this melee but end with – rhetoric.

For every one or two of Africa’s most pressing problems – whether it is the problem of bad governance, or the place of women or our uncanny ability to sell off the rug from right our feet – read our land – the answers to these problems indeed lie with Africa and Africans, but they do not lie in ‘political will’. For when one unpacks this oft-touted ‘political will’, one might emerge with the true answers on how to turn Africa’s resources into results for its people.


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Mamdani, Mahmood. 1996. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton University Press. Princeton.
Mamdani, Mahmood (ed) 2000. Beyond Rights Talk and Culture Talk: Comparative essays on Rights and Culture. St. Martin's Press. New York City
Mama, Amina. 2001. Challenging Subjects: Gender and Power in African Contexts in “Identity and Beyond: Rethinking Africanity”. Discussion Paper 12, Nordiska Afrikaninstitutet. Upasala
Lewis, Desiree. 2004. African Gender Research & Post Coloniality in African Gender Scholarship: Concepts, Methodologies and Paradigms. CODESRIA. Dakar. (27 – 41)
Wiredu, Kwasi. 1997. Democracy and Consensus in African Traditional Politics: A Plea for a Non-Party Polity in Eze, Emmanuel. 1997. Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader. Wiley-Blackwell. London